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The Forfeiture Rule: Does it pay to slay?

Over the years TV shows and popular culture have depicted storylines of people murdering wealthy family members in order to receive an early inheritance, or prevent it falling into the hands of someone else.

Sadly this is also true of real life, but can a person really benefit from their criminal actions like they do on the silver screen?

The Forfeiture Rule

Under Section 1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982, a person is precluded from “acquiring a benefit” in consequence of unlawfully killing another person. This is extended to a “person who has unlawfully aided, abetted, counselled or procured the death” of another.

In other words this means that a person is unable to inherit as a result of murder or if they are linked to the carrying out of the act. So where does the inheritance go?

In the 2001 case of Re DWS a grandson was barred from inheriting from his grandparent’s estate because his father had killed them both. The grandson was unable to inherit as the forfeiture rule applied to his father. This meant that as his father was first in line to inherit before him, but could not do so because of the murder and forfeiture rule, he was unable to take the inheritance in his place. In this circumstance his grandparents would have very likely wanted him to.

This led to a change in the law and the introduction of the Estates of Deceased Persons (Forfeiture Rule and Law of Succession) Act 2011 which amended this unjust rule.

The current position now dictates that a person who kills and is subject to the forfeiture rule will now be considered to have died before their victim for the purposes of inheritance. This now allows for grandchildren or descendants to take the place of a killer and the ability for inheritance to continue down the line of descendants and named beneficiaries.

What is the future of forfeiture and can the rule be waived?

It is clear from the wording of the Forfeiture Act 1982 that the rule cannot be modified in cases where a person is found guilty of murder.

However, under section 2 of the Act, the power to modify or provide relief from the rule can be used in instances where “having regard to the conduct of the offender and of the deceased and to such other circumstances as appear to the court to be material, the justice of the case requires the effect of the rule to be so modified.”

Simply put the courts are able to waive the forfeiture rule by giving consideration to the circumstances of how the act was carried out. This has particularly been seen widely in cases of manslaughter and assisted suicide.

In the case of Macmillan Cancer Support v Hayes and Long the court were asked to amend the forfeiture rule in relation to the actions of a husband who smothered his unwell wife before taking his own life. Both had drafted Wills leaving everything to each other in the first instance and then to differing beneficiaries after the surviving spouse died. It was discovered in a suicide letter to the coroner that they had both agreed to end their lives if there was no quality left.

In this instance the forfeiture rule was waived as a result of the circumstances in which the husband had assisted his wife’s suicide, including the fact that he thought he was acting in his her best interests, and the steps he took to make her comfortable before taking her life. Relief from the rule was subsequently given in this instance.

In conjunction the courts have made distinct judgements regarding instances of manslaughter.

In the 1985 case of Re K, a wife was convicted of manslaughter after pleading guilty to accidently killing her abusive husband. The wife had suffered a long period of physical violence and accidentally killed her husband when the safety catch of a loaded shotgun malfunctioned when she threaten him with it.

Whilst the threat of violence was sufficient for the forfeiture to occur in this instance, the court took into account her circumstances including the violence against her, her financial position and the extreme hardship the forfeiture rule would cause. In this case the rule was also waived as a result of the circumstances surrounding her actions and the act.

In summary, it apparent from case law that the courts still have the ability to bar people from inheritance but are cautious in their readiness to exercise the forfeiture rule. It is clear that the surrounding circumstances and overall intentions of an applicant will be considered in conjunction with their actions and that the court’s decision to grant relief in the future is still to be made on a case by case basis.